Stag Hartford didn’t like to think about the past. Or rather, he rarely thought about his own past that often. Mostly, this was because he had quite a lot of personal history to consider now, the majority of which he hadn’t been technically alive for. In truth, when he had been alive, he hadn’t been called Stag Hartford, nor even Stag. It was quite difficult to think about your own past if you weren’t sure what you were supposed to call your historical self. Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why reflections on the past were so disagreeable? Yet, even the prehistoric humans that had killed him, unceremoniously eaten him, and then painted his likeness on a cave wall to commemorate the event, didn’t have names at that time. Names just weren’t very fashionable then. He supposed, if he really thought about it, those carnivorous apes might have called him ‘meat’, but it was hard to tell for sure. He’d always done his best to stay away from their kind, for obvious reasons, and so can’t be sure they said anything much except for “grunt.” His own kind had always been too busy foraging and keeping clear of dangerous primates to bother with names, either. In the end, after having a name had become popular, he’d just given himself one: Stag. The second name, which he had also given himself, had only come when last names became necessary. But that was much later, and only after his own kind had already gone extinct. Alas, extinction had been the lot for many species of prehistoric deer – not just his own – over prehistories’ immense span. All those poor creatures that had been forced to die nameless.
Normally, reflections about the qualities of the nameless dead would make him feel sad. Not today, though. Today, what he felt was not sadness. It wasn’t quite anger, but something close to it. It was more a sour mix of frustration and irritability. Perhaps grumpiness? Yes, that was it. Stag Hartford was grumpy. A feeling that couldn’t easily be attributed to the sadness of being forced to name oneself. Maybe, given that he had the time, he should try to get to the source of this general malaise? It was very unpleasant, after all. He remembered some monkey had written, somewhere, that understanding the origins of mental trauma helped it to go away. No harm in trying, right? Except for the harm born of monkeys, but he doubted that would be a problem in this instance.
Reluctantly, Stag decided to start at the beginning.
Okay, so not quite at the beginning. He’d already covered that today. Anyway, there wasn’t that much to say. One minute, he’d been reaching for a really tasty looking fruit, the next he’d been watching himself become proto-religious iconography. Today’s unhappiness had no clear origins there. Well, some origins, but they were more like minor tributaries to the full-blown river of his discontent. So where to start?
Was it when, because Mamma Universe is a serious bitch, he’d had to watch his simian killers move on to an afterlife without any punishment? He didn’t know where the properly dead went when they became fully deceased, but he was sure that the people that had made tools of his bones didn’t deserve to go there. How could they? He’d done nothing more than eat vegetable matter – a pursuit that involved exactly no blood – and he was forced to hang around. Not just hang around, he’d been given a job. A job that paid precisely nothing, no less. A fact he’d only noticed once the concept of currency had been invented. Yet, and regardless of when abstractions of value had been conceived of, he’d been going without payment the whole time. Sure, he didn’t ever need to buy anything in his current existential state – or in his previous one for that matter – but that was hardly the point.
This, thought Stag, was proving a fruitful line of inquiry. Clearly the whole unpaid work thing had touched a nerve. He probed deeper, attempting to remember exactly how he’d managed to end up with un-asked-for employment; an employment, moreover, that had left him neither truly dead, nor really alive.
It had begun, he recalled, with the first appearance of Mamma Universe. She hadn’t appeared right after his death. Nor had she appeared while his remains were being consumed, or even while those that had partaken of his flesh were taking a very pleasant post-lunch nap. No, she had waited until after his likeness had been painted on a cave wall, and the artist was exhibiting it to friends. They were all standing around, pointing at the artwork, and grunting commentary. To be fair, it was quite a flattering representation, and so he could see why it deserved some comment. He was less convinced it deserved so much comment, though. At least, not the several hours of grunts it was getting. Sure, the firelight made it seem as though the image had come to life – contorting his representation in strange shimmers – but that was just a trick of the light. As a deer, or former deer, he understood well how the play of light and shadow worked. All his kind did, it was a practical skill. Albeit one that had recently failed him in the most fatal of ways. It was then that Mamma Universe had shown up.
In the form of a star she came, gliding through the prehistoric night, and bathing all before her in silvery star-fire. This should have surprised Stag, it wasn’t normal to see stars cruising around on the ground, after all. But it had already been a strange few days for him, so the parameters of what he thought of as odd had shifted somewhat. He was slightly bemused as to why the oversized-monkeys at the cave wall weren’t freaking out – in addition to their violent and blood-thirsty nature, they were quite stupid, and therefore were frightened of everything they didn’t understand. Of course, what he didn’t know then, but knew now, was that they had not seen a small and fearsome terrestrial star, but an innocuous looking primitive girl-child. (Girls wouldn’t become frightening for humans until much later.) The reason for this, as he was to find out after the fact, was that Mamma Universe had no natural form of her own. Instead, she would appear to beings in the form that they most expected to see. For Stag, that form was a star. The star spoke to him in what he supposed was a pleasant female voice.
“Hello deer,” the voice said, “I am Mamma Universe.”
“Interesting,” Stag said. Mostly because he had no idea what a Mamma Universe was, but guessed that it was probably meant to be interesting. “Is there something I can help you with?”
The star, now revealed to be Mamma Universe, dimmed slightly. “Honestly, that’s not the response I was expecting. Tell me, what do I look like to you?”
“A small Earth-bound Star.”
“I see.” Mamma Universe dimmed again. She was thinking. “It doesn’t strike you as impressive that a star should be talking to you? It’s been my experience that stars don’t generally talk. It’s one of the reasons I find them so boring.”
“I meant no offense,” replied Stag earnestly, “only I’ve had a very difficult week. I guess I must be feeling a little washed-out.”
“Quite,” said Mamma Universe, brightening again, “That would explain it. No matter, I should probably get on with what I came to do.”
“You came to do something?”
“Oh yes. Specifically, I’ve come to give you something.”
“Really? What? Is it something good, perhaps in the form of a tasty fruit? I didn’t get to enjoy the last one.”
Mamma Universe shone brighter. “Even better than fruit. I have come to give you a job.”
“A what?” Although Stag didn’t yet know what a job was, he had the feeling that it was unlikely to be better than tasty fruit.
“A job. An occupation. A vocational calling. A thing you have to do because it is required.”
Stag was genuinely interested. “I’m curious, sky-Fire,” which he only called Mamma Universe because it sounded cool, “what would this job involve?”
“YOU,” the star, that was really Mamma Universe, made echo off several rock faces, “WILL BE THE WORLD’S FIRST SPIRIT ANIMAL.”
“Actually, and I’m surprised to say this, that does sound quite good. Tell me, are there any benefits to this ‘Spirit Animal’ gig?”
“Most assuredly,” Mamma Universe lied, “MANY benefits.”
“Like what? For instance, do I get to be alive again?”
“Mamma Universe dimmed and sparkled in a way that looked slightly embarrassed. “I’m afraid not. Yet, you won’t really be dead, either. It’s sort of a special status.”
“Okay.” Stag mulled it over. The opportunity still seemed promising, despite this minor disappointment. “What would I have to do?”
“You will be a spiritual guide to the living, allowing them to draw on your power and traverse the immense expanse that yawns between the spaces of life, the not so life, and the completely dead. You will, in time, become the focus of both profound spiritual awakening and the mysteries of religion.”
Wow, thought Stag, that does sound awesome. “I’m onboard…. I have a question, though. I mean, if you don’t mind?”
“What is spiritual religion?”
Mamma Universe stretched out a star beam to illuminate the apes and cave painting. “That,” she said, “is the beginning of it.”
As he thought about this now, Stag realized that he was, in fact, quite cross about the job he had received at that first meeting with Mamma Universe. Moreover, this was – as he had correctly guessed – why he was so desperately grumpy today. It was clear to him, after his millennia of experience in the role of Spirit Animal, that Mamma Universe had taken advantage of his ‘deer-ish’ naiveté when she had handed him the task. He began to make a mental list of all the ways he now knew that he had be tricked by her.
First, she had made the whole thing sound really cool, and not at all like the continuous servitude to the species that had killed him it turned out to be. Second, she’d made it seem like he had a choice, when he hadn’t; it was his understanding that this is one of the ways that hegemony works, an operation of power that he found quite offensive. Third, there were no benefits to the ‘special status’ of being a Spirit Animal. That status turned out to be no kind of status at all; even the ghosts teased him about it, and they were, well, ghosts. Ghosts – a category of deadness, so it seemed to Stag, that literally meant you hadn’t managed to die properly – should keep their fat spectral mouths shut and mind their own business. Fourth, and this was perhaps the worst trick of all, that whole ‘beginning of spiritual religion’ thing had been a lucky guess. Mamma Universe had presented herself as omniscient, when in fact she really had no idea what was going to happen next. No, that wasn’t the fourth thing, although it was part of it. There was something else there. The ‘something’ that was the true source of his traumatic grumpiness. The ‘something’ that once discovered, assuming the literate monkey had been right, would make all his pain go away.
Stag probed deeper into his memories. He would find out the true nature of this fourth if it killed him… again. Slowly, a pattern emerged. The pattern became a revelation. Then, the revelation became a cold and terrifying truth: Mamma Universe hadn’t guessed about spiritual religion, she had made it happen. What is more, she’d done it because she was bored. It had been she that had put that tasty fruit in the way of the hunting party. It had be she that had given the artist the idea for art, the necessary materials needed to execute it, and the idea of what kind of subject matter was most deserving of representation on a cave wall. He could now see that whenever it looked like spiritual religion was about to die out, Mamma Universe would find ways to make sure it didn’t. A timely appearance to some key figure in spiritual crisis had normally been enough. When it wasn’t, instigating a really good holy war would work at a push. There were other means that Stag could see, too. These were much more subtle, but nonetheless made sure the light of that idea never fully died out in the world. And Stag had been her dupe.
The monkey was wrong, this discovery hadn’t made Stag feel any better, it had made him feel worse, and properly angry.
Then, in one of those coincidences that people who don’t believe in coincidence know can’t possibly be one, a star began to crest the hill on which Stag was standing. “Mamma Universe,” Stag intoned, the bile of his wrath bitter on his tongue. “She and I are going to have words.”
Stag began preparations for the confrontation to come. It would likely be very unpleasant. Then, halfway though his metal yoga, he stopped. There was something odd about Mamma Universe’s arrival. He squinted in the star’s direction. She had company. He narrowed his squint to bring the company into better focus. She appeared to have two ghosts with her. “I could wear a loincloth, broken sandals, and gold chain and still look amazing” one ghost was saying. “Tell me again Witch-hag of Fate, why did we have to leave the pub through the urinal,” said the other. Mamma Universe, quite out of character, was saying nothing at all.
“Interesting,” said Stag Hartford.
END OF PART TWO